Apple and RIM hit with patent suit for “drag,” “tap” and “scroll”

A Texas shell company says Apple (s AAPL) and others have infringed on technology for basic smartphone gestures like dragging and “double tap.” The patents were issued in 2007 to a Taiwanese maker of touchpad technology.

In lawsuits filed this week, a shell called “Touchscreen Gestures” claims devices like the iPhone, the iPad and the Blackberry Playbook(s rimm) are infringing on its technology. A related suit accuses Samsung’s Galaxy tablet of violating the same patents.

The patents are US  Patent 7190356 (“A method of identifying double tap gesture”), US Patent 7180506 (“A method for identifying a movement of single tap 7180506) and US Patent 7184031 (“A method identifying a drag gesture”).

A fourth claim takes aim at scrolling, invoking US Patent 7,319,457 (“Method of Scrolling Window Screen by Means of Controlling Electronic Device”).

All four patents were issued in 2007 and 2008 to Taiwanese company Sentelic, a privately-held company that makes touch-pads. CNET last year spoke poorly of the firm in reviewing a laptop:  “The touch pad is equally terrible, which is to be expected: it’s a Sentelic. Erratic behaviour and terrible software is the hallmark of a Sentelic pad.”

To be valid, a patent must be new and non-obvious. (Our mobile editor Kevin Tofel notes, “Windows CE / Pocket PC had on screen tapping around 2000 and Palm even before that.”)

It’s unclear how the patents made their way from Sentelic to the Texas court room. The most likely explanation is that they were purchased by one of a growing number of professional “patent trolls” — firms that don’t make anything but amass patents in order to make a business of suing deep-pocketed companies like Apple.

The trolls typically pick a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction like East Texas where rural juries have frequently issued verdicts in the tens of millions of dollars.

The troll problem is becoming more acute in 2012 as top patent lawyers leave their firms to partner with hedge funds in trolling ventures.

Defenders of trolls (more politely called “non practicing entities”) say the patent lawsuits are a way to promote innovation. Critics say the lawsuits are a form of extortion.

Here’s a copy of the suit against Apple:

Touchscreen v Apple

Photo courtesy of Flickr user [Jacob Bøtter]